Richard and I went to a concert by Voices of Ascension on 5/21/15. It was a Christmas present from my friend Susie, and we sat with her and her best friend Jimmy. Susie has been one of the essential members of Voices since they were founded 25 years ago, and she brought me to one of their concerts not long after I moved here. They're a professional chorus conducted by Dennis Keene, and they do exclusively sacred music, almost always in their home base, the Church of the Ascension, on 5th Avenue and 11th Street, a glorious old church. They always blow me away - - they always make me weep, they always thrill me with their perfect blend and clean yet warm, transparent yet colorful sound. They have that elusive balance of precision and passion that we're all looking for in a live musical performance.
This was their Renaissance concert, the final concert in their 25th anniversary season. They did something cute; they sent out a list of pieces they were considering and asked their donors/subscribers/etc to vote on what pieces they wanted to hear. The winners were a lot of Victoria and Palestrina and other wonderful composers (Schuetz, Byrd, Tallis, etc), and also the piece I most desperately wanted to hear, the Lotti "Crucifixus".
It's a piece about Christ on the cross, and it uses lots of crunchy dissonances and startling harmonic shifts to convey his agony. It's a masterpiece. I sang it in Concert Choir back in 1987, and it's stuck with me all these years. Dr. Fountain (the conductor of Concert Choir) took a very slow tempo - - I would call it the Bernstein Doing Mahler tempo: very slow, but not quite as slow as the Jessye Norman Doing Carmen tempo. Glacial, but not quite "any slower it would be in reverse". So I was a little skeptical when Keene and Voices of Ascension took a faster tempo. In retrospect I would describe it as "moderate", but at first blush it sounded too fast, compared to the way I was used to hearing it. My first thought: "Is this 'Lotti Crucifixus: The Dance Remix'?" I got used to it pretty quickly, and was totally on board for his chosen tempo.
The end of the piece has a few of those startling harmonic shifts I mentioned before, including a shocking fully diminished chord that comes out of nowhere and melts into a gentle, minor chord - - and then after a brief rest, another shocking fully diminished chord, followed by the final chord progressions of the piece, ending in a transcendent C major chord, Christ ascending to heaven. You might not think you know what a fully diminished chord sounds like, but picture the music you hear in an old silent movie, when the damsel is tied to the railroad tracks and the train is coming towards her. That's a fully diminished chord, it's full of tension. The performance we heard literally took my breath away at this peak moment in the piece, I will never again hear such a perfect performance of that piece. For the record, there are only three fully diminished chords in captivity - - bravo to Lotti for using two of them within four measures, and using them so effortlessly and effectively.
Here's what Keene does: his interpretation of whatever piece he's doing is genius because it presents the genius of the composer. There is no higher praise for a conductor.